Federal appeals panel reinstates inmate's First Amendment claims

By David Hudson
The Freedom Forum Online

A federal appeals panel unanimously reinstated the civil rights lawsuit of a Pennsylvania inmate who alleged he was placed in administrative segregation in retaliation for suing prison officials.

Michael Malik Allah, a Muslim inmate, had filed at least two civil rights lawsuits against prison officials for violating both his free-exercise of religion and free-speech rights.

After his suits were filed, Allah was transferred to another prison and placed in administrative segregation, or what inmates refer to as "the hole."

Allah sued in federal court, contending that the prison officials' actions denied him meaningful access to the courts and constituted unlawful retaliation. Both the access-to-the-court and retaliation claims assert that Allah's First Amendment rights were violated.

After a federal district court dismissed his suit in 1997, Allah appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The district court dismissed his claims based on its reading of the Supreme Court's 1995 decision in Sandlin v. Connor. In Sandlin, the high court ruled that prison officials did not violate the due-process rights of an inmate when they sentenced him to disciplinary segregation.

The district court interpreted the Sandlin ruling as invalidating any claim that resulted from placing an inmate in administrative segregation.

On Sept. 28, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit unanimously reinstated Allah's claims in Allah v. Seiverling. The appeals court noted that the Supreme Court in Sandlin made clear that its decision only impacted due-process claims. The appeals court cited the following language from Sandlin:

"Prisoners ... , of course, retain other protection from arbitrary state action even within the expected conditions of confinement. They may invoke the First and Eighth Amendments and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment where appropriate and may draw upon internal prison grievance procedures and state judicial review where available."

The 3rd Circuit panel concluded that "Allah's claim alleging denial of his constitutional right to meaningful access to the courts is not foreclosed by Sandlin."

The appeals court panel also determined that Allah's retaliation claim was not invalidated by the Sandlin decision. "Retaliation may be actionable, however, even when the retaliatory action does not involve a liberty interest," the panel wrote.

Joseph T. Lukens, Allah's attorney, said the decision was significant "because it stands for the broad constitutional principle that prison officials cannot punish prisoners for accessing the courts to protect their civil rights."

Calls to the attorney for the prison officials were not returned.